Progress on Macedonia name change highlights Balkan divisions
Greeks protest push for a deal to end dispute over name of their neighbouring country
Protesters wave Greek flags in a demonstration to protest against the use of Macedonia in the name of the state on Greece’s northern border. Photograph: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images
Thousands of Greeks have protested against their government’s push for a compromise deal to end a 27-year dispute over the name of its Balkan neighbour Macedonia and boost its hopes of EU and Nato membership.
Athens has pledged to prevent Macedonia joining either organisation until it changes a name that it shares with a region of northern Greece and removes sections of its constitution that allegedly imply a territorial claim on that area.
Negotiations have made rapid progress since a Social Democrat-led coalition replaced a nationalist government in Macedonia last year, and top officials in Skopje and Athens say hopes of a deal in the very near future are high.
The EU would like to see agreement before it holds a summit in Brussels starting on June 28th.
Such a deal could allow Nato to invite Macedonia to become its 30th member at a summit of its own in July.
The name issue is deeply divisive in both Balkan states, however, and Greeks rallied in more than 20 towns and cities on Wednesday to urge their government to reject any new name for their neighbour that includes the word “Macedonia”.
Last Saturday, thousands of Macedonians protested against any change to its name and amendment of its constitution, which the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party leader Hristijan Mickoski warned would “do irreparable damage”.
Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov, an ally of VMRO-DPMNE, is also opposed to the adoption of any new name “erga omnes” - for use at home and abroad in all contexts.
As prospects have grown for a deal between Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev and Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras, Mr Ivanov has complained that “the whole process resembles a personal arrangement between (them)...for which a national consensus in the Republic of Macedonia has not been obtained.”
Despite Mr Ivanov’s disapproval and the spate of protests, senior officials in Macedonia and Greece are cautiously optimistic about a deal, with “New”, Upper” or “Northern” Macedonia considered the main options.
“Let’s not go into details. It is only a matter of days. After I have spoken with my counterpart, the public will be informed,” Mr Zaev said on Tuesday, while adding that the talks were “sensitive”.
On Greek television on Monday, the country’s foreign minister Nikos Kotzias said: “There comes a time when you have to say the big ‘yes’ or the big ‘no’.”
“Now that we are reaching the end, the (Skopje) government has realised the great difficulties and wanted to think again. My feeling is that within a few days we will overcome the problems.”
As a goodwill gesture, Macedonia this year removed Alexander the Great’s name from its national airport and main highway, soothing Greek anger over Skopje’s perceived attempt to lay claim to the fabled ruler of ancient Macedon.